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Food pantries offer all-round benefits, Church Action on Poverty finds

19 July 2023

Church Action on Poverty

Paradox Centre Pantry, Chingford

Paradox Centre Pantry, Chingford

THE 35,000 people who use a network of church-run food pantries in the UK are saving up to £1000 a year on groceries, research from Church Action on Poverty has found.

The findings, which also suggest that the scheme improves mental health and well-being, are set out in the social-impact report Your Local Pantry: So much more! published on Tuesday — the day that the network opened its 100th pantry in Aylesham, Kent.

Members of Your Local Pantry, co-ordinated by the charity Church Action on Poverty, pay a set fee of between £3.50 and £7 a week for ten grocery items of their choosing from their local pantry. Items are colour coded to promote a balanced diet.

These pantries are often held in church buildings and set out like a regular supermarket — different to a foodbank. This system works on the values of “dignity, choice, and hope”, including by reducing the stigma of asking for help, the report says.

The network estimates that users are saving about £21 a week — equivalent of up to £1000 a year. Pantries were visited about 226,000 times last year, saving members a total of £4.75 million. This is improving the lives of up to 90,000 people, including children, it says.

On survey respondent said: “We were guardians for our three grandchildren . . . as I was working we had no other help; so the Pantry was a godsend. Being able to feed three hungry teens on one wage was not easy, but the Pantry helped me to afford the food they liked and buy clothes for them.”

Improved finances are not the only benefit, the report says. One of the network’s 2000 volunteers, Ellie, from Paradox Pantry, in London, said: “Friendships are one of the biggest benefits that people get from the Pantry.” About half the volunteers are members themselves.

Among the key findings are that pantries are bringing communities together with a familiar environment and faces, helping to reduce isolation; they are improving nutrition intake by offering affordable fresh, frozen, chilled, and seasonal products, as well as recipe ideas; food waste is prevented by the network’s working with the environmental charity FareShare, and His Church, to redistribute supply-chain surpluses; and the network offers volunteering opportunities as a “stepping stone to employment”.

The findings are based on a survey of 1149 pantry members, and another of 46 pantry hosts, as well as economic analysis of typical basket contents and interviews with members at nine pantries.

Almost all members (97 per cent) said that the pantries had improved their household finances; of these, half said that the situation was “a lot better” than before, and that their food waste had reduced (98 per cent). Most (83 per cent) said that membership had been good for their mental health, and more than two-thirds said that it had been good for their physical health.

Three-quarters felt more connected to their community, while two-thirds said that they had made new friends. One survey respondent said: “It’s the only shop where I don’t feel depressed at the exorbitant price of everything. And, sometimes, it’s my only direct contact with people all week.”

Most members also reported eating more fresh fruit and vegetables; 67 per cent said that they had tried new foods; and 59 per cent were eating less processed food. Almost half (47 per cent) were eating more food than before. Robin, a member of Kingston Pantry, said: “I don’t cover my bills and food on a monthly basis. I skip meals so that I can make sure my son has something to eat.”

The network development co-ordinator of Your Local Pantry, James Henderson, said: “Pantries have enabled tens of thousands of people around the UK to strengthen their community and loosen the grip of high prices. They reduce isolation, foster community, improve health, and save people money. They are a reminder that communities can do and be so much more when they come together.”

The chief executive of Church Action on Poverty, Niall Cooper, repeated calls for the Government to take firmer action on the cost-of-living crisis. “Community organisations have long warned that charity is not the long-term answer to household food insecurity.

“Many Pantries are now having to spend significant sums on food to top up their stocks, as FareShare struggles to meet rising need. This should be a wake-up call to the whole country. Everyone should have access to good food. [The] Government must do much more to guarantee everyone can afford the essentials, and prevent even more people being swept into poverty by an economy beyond their control.”

Your Local Pantry expects to open a further 125 pantries by the end of 2025, under a new partnership between Church Action on Poverty and the Co-op. The first Pantry opened ten years ago in Stockport; Church Action on Poverty has co-ordinated its expansion since 2016. There were four Pantries by 2018, and 35 by 2021.

Of the 100 pantries now open, 32 are in the north-west of England; 22 are in Birmingham and the West Midlands; London has seven; Wales has five; Scotland has six (all in Edinburgh); and Yorkshire has three.

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